Parecon’s Achilles’ Heel
By J.D. Casten at Jul 06, 2010
Parecon’s Achilles ’ Heel: The Class Division of Fame and Brawn
One might not suspect Arnold Schwarzenegger to be a hero of Parecon, but in this post, I propose that two of his attributes—fame and brawn—are those that the Parecon system as detailed in Parecon – Life After Capitalism celebrates.
Now, I’m not big fan of state-capitalism… but to put my cards on the table, I’ll say up front that I’m for employee owned businesses encouraged by tax incentives. I see the widespread enactment of employee owned business to be a step between what we have and something more fair, like Parecon aspires to be. I am not hostile to Parecon… I believe in many of the critiques of capitalism and the values of Parecon as expounded in Michael Albert’s book. But I’m skeptical of any system that claims any sort of finality that might not be improved upon. I think Parecon could be, to use Albert’s term, “tweaked” (Parecon, p. 252).
I will not be arguing against Parecon’s politicizing of the economy at every turn (that is, that in practice, the economy would be held up by endless debate… as illustrated by Albert’s own endless debates defending Parecon)—as I think we really could use more discussion about the sorts of things that Parecon citizens would decide on.
No… my targets here would be the glorification of fame in Parecon, as a substitute for monetary rewards, and the continued use of “braininess” as an example of what talent is, and how brainy talent should not be rewarded (monetarily)—but brawny talent applied to “onerous” work should be given the cold hard cash (or electronic currency). My critique is spurred by a belief that the fame incentive for innovation (that the talented should use their talents to help society progress) is shallow, is not a real incentive, and really shouldn’t be one; and that by focusing arguments about talent on “brain-talent”—Albert ignores the fact that some are born also with physical talents that do get rewarded monetarily for perceived effort for the jobs done. One gets the picture of those “Soviet Realism” artworks that glorify brawny farmers and factory workers (or even, in the US, Rosy the Riveter)—glorified at the expense of those who might replace such onerous labor with technological advances.
In chapter 17 – “Meritocracy / Innovation” (Parecon, pp. 248-252), Albert claims:
“It is true we do not recommend paying those with more training higher wages since we believe it would be inequitable to do so. But that does not mean people would not seek to enhance their productivity by becoming more knowledgeable. First of all, education and training would be public expenses, not private. So there are not material disincentives to pursing education and training. Secondly, since parecon is not an ‘acquisitive’ society, respect, esteem, and social recognition would be based largely on ‘social serviceability’ which is enhanced precisely by developing one’s most socially useful potentials through education and training” (Parecon, p. 249-250).
“Furthermore, an individual’s contribution is often the product of genius and luck as much as diligence and persistence, and personal sacrifice, all of which implies that recognizing innovation through social esteem rather than material reward is ethically superior” (Parecon, p. 250).
I can see no other way to describe the praise of “social esteem” than as a celebration of fame. In other words, you should seek to innovate, using your brain, not in order to get more pay, but to become famous.
Not everyone questions the value of fame, but I do. In the internet age, where as Nick Currie claimed, “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people”—fame has become more and more decentralized. There are many many artists, musicians, etc. who have relatively small audiences… and audiences, I believe, have become more varied in their interests. True, we still have television and movie stars—and also (and this will become important in a moment) intellectual and political celebrities. But the internet has helped, I think, to decentralize this form of Power.
How is fame a form of Power? It carries the power to influence people, based on a perceived authority— we sometimes see movie-stars endorsing products: why does this work?—they have persuasive power, based on their celebrity. Michael Jordan is probably not an expert on sneakers to the extent that his endorsement can help sell them. If power can move mountains (and product)… what would be more powerful than fame? Material wealth? What does that get you, other than a big boat, nice house, etc? Yes, in a capitalist society, one can hire other people to increase one’s wealth… and at worst, use that position to exploit labor and buy off politicians… but what good is a politician, if they don’t have a bit of fame?…fame that often has as much do with their celebrity personality, the celebration of charisma, as it does with proficiency in legislative ability (although the two may coincide).
So, on the one hand, Parecon trades one sort of power, money, for another: fame.
But, on the other hand, I believe that fame not only should not be an incentive for innovation on moral grounds (power equality)… but that fame is a way of short-changing people who innovate.
Here’s Albert’s argument for people innovating, not for fame, but for perceived self-interest:
“In a parecon, however, workers also have a ‘material incentive,’ if you will, to implement innovations that improve the quality of their work life. This means they have an incentive to implement changes that increase the social benefits of the outputs they produce or that reduce the social costs of the inputs they consume, since anything that increases an enterprise’s social-benefit-to-social-cost ratio will allow the workers to win approval for their proposal with less effort, or sacrifice, on their part.” (Parecon, p. 252).
What Albert is claiming here is that a person’s innovations will make their work easier. But people get paid for how difficult their work is in parecon, not for how easy it is! In a perverse way, people are stuck with a choice: keep the work hard, and get paid more for it, or innovate, make it easier, and get paid less. Now, if this “easier” part made labor quicker, then we’d have more time to do other paying tasks. But this is not always the case—sometimes a lever makes the load less heavy but just as time-consuming to move. Although getting paid for how onerous your work is, is fair… it could lead to people not innovating in ways that would make their work easier.
Let’s take an example: the toilet scrubbing robot. Now, I believe everyone should take their fair-share of toilet scrubbing duty. But when I’m paid, or I see that many are paid for scrubbing toilets, and that inventing that toilet scrubbing robot would put us all in a position to do less onerous work—then we’d all get paid less, and wouldn’t see the return for some time (with the over-all less labor for everyone that frees people up to do other services.) Not everyone would see, or would be willing to wait for, innovations eventually having a social impact that they share—while in the meantime, less pay for less onerous work.
Albert also claims:
“It should be recognized that no economy ever has paid or ever could pay its greatest innovators the full social value of their innovations, which means that if material compensation is the only reward, innovation will be under-stimulated in any case. Moreover, too often material reward is merely an imperfect substitute for what is truly desired: social esteem” (Parecon, p. 250).
Again, one type of power is traded for another (money for fame). One could imagine, at an extreme, a bunch of famous innovators, and better paid workers, where the muscle-bound Morlocks have all the best paying jobs, but the brainy Eloi have all the fame. Maybe this is fairer than the Eloi having both the fame and the money—but I think Parecon still has a class-caste-system built in (as between, in the army, educated officers and non-commissioned officers; on ZNet, between the official writers and the non-official; between the Lords and the Commons; between the Capitalists and the Proletariats, etc.)—the brainy innovators with fame, and the brawny laborers with the better paying jobs. True… the brainy could decide to work at more onerous jobs, and get more pay… but are the brawny to be denied the power of fame? Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger could prove otherwise.
To the point, my question would be: could Parecon give a few vast amounts of power, in the form of Fame? Why is that sort of power inequality just? Doesn’t Parecon replace money-class society with a fame-class society? (Remember, fame carries a bit of power!)
The corollary question is this: If fame isn’t powerful, then why is it seen as good as money, as far as stimulating innovation? Is adulation really that desirable in itself?
I really don’t have a solution to this problem—Parecon might fare better here than state-capitalism… but I believe a crucial error is not to tie more monetary value to an individual’s contribution to social value (as is done with royalties). I believe Albert would reject royalties, even with a cap, as sneaking markets in the back (or front) door—but I think in some cases, consumer markets, democracy of the dollar, can lead to their own type of fairness and incentives for socially useful innovation.